History Lesson 101: The Top 10 Time-Bending Movies

It would take a lot of time to get through all 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Imagine how much easier it would be if you could watch a new one every day a la Groundhog Day or travel back in time to watch the original screening of each one via the DeLorean in Back to the Future? Sadly, that’s not going to happen. So instead here are the top 10 movies (half of which are from 1001 movies…) that play with our notion of time in fun and instructive ways.

1. Groundhog Day
The is the smartest of movies—a high-concept slice of humor that manages to be as thought provoking as it is funny. Moreover, with its premise of the same day constantly repeating, it registers on an emotional level what most mainstream comedies can only dream of, while asking of us what we would do if a single moment in time were to play out again. Groundhog Day works because we all have regrets, great or small. Each of us has a moment that we wish we could take back because of something we said or did. We can’t, but through Phil’s actions, his awareness of his own failings and attempts to make things right, we can, just for a moment, find a way to redeem ourselves.

2. Edge of Tomorrow
Doug Liman’s recent scifi blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow offered audiences a narrative similar to Groundhog‘s premise, albeit with more guns, Tom Cruise and humanity on the brink of annihilation. But scratch away at the surface and you’re left with the same character arc: like Bill Murray’s cynic, Cruise plays a man who has forgotten his humanity through a fog of self-loathing. Time can only truly begin again when he realizes that to live is to feel.

3. and 4. Back to the Future and Back to the Future II
Although Robert Zemekis’ Back to the Future may have been the perfect time travel movie, its sequel threatened to tear the franchise’s fabric apart with its myriad alternate realities. Arguably one of the most ambitious blockbuster films Hollywood has ever produced, Back to the Future II confounded as much as it entertained. But it set the standard for big-budget time travel films.

5. Run Lola Run
Adopting a Rashomon-style narrative structure Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer’s pop culture classic gave us Franke Potente’s eponymous hero racing through three variations of the same story, as she attempts to save her boyfriend.

6. and 7. La Jetée and Twelve Monkeys
And then there is Chris Marker’s photo-roman, a 28-minute film entirely comprised of still images save for one brief and crucial moment, it tells the story of a man in the future who returns to the present to save humanity but falls in love with a woman and becomes both the witness to and victim of the same assassination. If it sounds familiar, the film was reworked by Terry Gilliam as Twelve Monkeys.

8. Donnie Darko
The very definition of a sleeper movie—the movie’s success on DVD has made it one of the great cult movies of the 2000s. Donnie hears prophesies about the end of the world, can see timelines in front of his family, knows what their futures will bring. The movie’s ending twists back onto itself, leaving the audience to question reality.

9. Primer
Shane Carruth’s Primer may not be as instantly accessible, but no movie has ever attempted to contemplate the complexity of time travel with such ingenious results. One viewing isn’t enough to comprehend the scale of the film’s ambition. And like the time travelers it focuses on, obsessed with the multitude of selves they have unleashed out into the world as a result of their various journeys into the past, it’s not too hard to join them in a fascination with the infinite possibilities that a time machine could offer.

10. It’s a Wonderful Life
Perhaps the best-known, and best-loved, of all films that disrupt our concept of time is Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. A much darker film than its ending might suggest, it doesn’t ask the question “what would we do if we could repeat the past,” but shows what a world would be like if one person had never existed.

Are you keeping track of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die? Groundhog Day, Back to the Future, Run Lola Run, La Jetée and It’s a Wonderful Life are all on the list. We’ve made it easy to scratch one off your list—find out when Groundhog Day is airing on SundanceTV.

If you love time-bending, then you’ll love Doctor Who! Watch the new season, Sat., Sep. 19 at 9/8c on BBC America.

Also be sure to check out what THE RETURNED are up to—catch up on Season 1 now before Season 2 premieres Oct. 31 at 10/9c.